by Vytautas Bruveris
What are the methods for Lithuania as a country and society to demonstrate by deeds rather than words true solidarity with the country’s Jewish community, almost completely exterminated in the Holocaust, with the victims and with their descendants?
After all, this year has been declared not only the Year of the Vilna Gaon but also the Year of Litvak History at the highest level of state.
Moreover, this year Lithuania and the world mark the round anniversary of a date connected with World War II, Nazi crimes and the Holocaust.
At least two such methods have long been clear.
One is a public and comprehensive inventory of the participation of Lithuanians in the mass murder of Jews, finally determining the true scope of that participation and attempting to complete the return of the property stolen and seized from the victims to their descendants.
The second is no less important: to repudiate efforts for Soviet oppression, crimes and mass murder to be recognized as genocide, not just in our country but at the international level.
This needs to be done despite the fact such efforts at the international level have begun to bear some fruit recently. The basic barriers to calling Soviet crimes and the Holocaust by the same name are, after all, not primarily formal or legal, but ethical and moral.
This has been emphasized by historians from some of the most important Holocaust research institutes and centers of memory.
How likely is at the current time that finally at least one of these steps or both steps would be taken? The probability of this has been and remains slight and one could say theoretical. In recent times, however, it has been even less probable.
General Storm, or a Never-Ending Fairytale?
What forces us to assess so skeptically the possibility that not just this year but also in the near future we might hope for greater progress in Lithuanian thinking about the Holocaust and in understanding it?
One of the newest arguments in favor of such skepticism is provided again by the never-ending story of Nazi official and anti-Soviet resister Jonas Noreika, or General Storm.
In April the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania announced it had won yet another and probably the final victory in the Lithuanian courts against U.S.-resident Litvak and Lithuanian citizen Grant Gochin.
The Lithuanian Supreme Administrative Court rejected Gochin’s suit about the refusal by lower courts to require the Center modify its historical finding on Jonas Noreika.
The Center has claimed that after becoming the head of the Šiauliai district subordinate to the Nazi administration, Jonas Noreika signed orders for forming Jewish ghettos and seizing their property.
At the same time the Center has attempted to whitewash this fact to the maximum extent possible, characterizing these actions by Noreika with a Jesuit-like formula: to the effect that the occupational regime “succeeded in drawing Noreika into the administration of affairs connected with the isolation of the Jews.”
Further, Center representatives as well as their proponents constantly proclaim regarding this issue that Noreika, as with many Lithuanians of the period, didn’t understand the purpose of the ghettos and believed–even with good foundation–the Jews would be safest inside the ghettos.
The main emphasis has always been Noreika was “part of the anti-Nazi underground” and was later transported to the Stuffhof concentration camp for this.
All of these arguments are crowned by evidence Noreika was even an active rescuer of Jews, although the Center didn’t have any information which clearly provides a basis for these claims.
Just as passions were reaching their zenith over the removal of a plaque commemorating Noreika in the Lithuanian capital, the Center, based on one testimony made in U.S. courts decades after the war was over, announced Noreika was one of the primary rescuers of Jews in Šiauliai.
Many Lithuanian historians severely criticized what they called the conclusion made without sufficient foundation, unreliably and primarily politically based.
Then, after yet another court victory against Gochin, the Center went even further and with more courage: delighted by the court’s decision in their official press release, the Center announced that according to its “finding” based on one testimony, Noreika had “actively contributed to the rescue of Lithuanian Jews and he should be considered a member of the anti-Nazi resistance beginning right at the time of the beginning of his work as head of the Šiauliai district.”
So a man who was a Nazi administration official, who signed orders for oppressing Jews, is proclaimed a rescuer of Jews, based on one person’s testimony, without any other information.
There Aren’t Answers, Even for the Radicals
Grant Gochin is a radical figure who belongs to the group of people in the West and Israel who call the entire Lithuanian people irredeemably anti-Semitic and the Lithuanian state the denier of and coverer for that nation’s Holocaust crimes.
Gochin and his fellow thinkers correspondingly act freely with historical material, testimonies and facts, and their reliability, primarily orienting themselves towards whether one or another matter coincides with their opinion.
So the historical information was of this sort which he provided the courts and the Center itself, demanding Noreika be proclaimed a murderer of Jews and a direct Holocaust perpetrator.
The Center called this information insufficient and unreliable. The court, meanwhile, only judged the disorderly and inappropriate manner in which Gochin had presented his grievances which, the court decided, the Center had checked in a totally orderly and well-founded manner, and had rejected.
Following the court’s verdict, Gochin several times called Lithuanians “a nation of Jew-shooters” who “have nothing good” and who are totally moral degenerates as is their state. He also said he would continue to fight and, it seems, would do so at international courts.
The most important thing, however, in this entire story, in all these battles over Noreika in the courts and beyond their walls, is the trend indicated by the Center’s attitude.
The Center, after all, represents the position and convictions of the elite of a significant section of society and politics, of the bureaucracy and military, of special agencies, on this issue, and therefore has received so much open and shadow support from this camp.
To this camp, the fact Noreika signed orders for establishing a Jewish ghetto and seizing property doesn’t mean anything. More precisely, it doesn’t mean anything bad in and of itself. Furthermore, they are convinced this action can be completely neutralized and relativized by proclaiming Noreika didn’t understand what ghettos were and what threat they truly posed to the Jews, that he had no other choice, or, most significantly, that he made total amends for this activity and even went above and beyond that by his achievements as a “rescuer of Jews.”
Those supporting the Center’s position categorically deny the idea just one such action is sufficient for a person to be considered a Holocaust perpetrator who took part in the process of mass murder, even though imprisoning Jews in ghettos and stealing their property is nothing other than parts and stages of this process.
So the supporters of Noreika and the Center categorically disagree with the statement such people, without regard to their later actual or alleged achievements, to their “lack of understanding” and “lack of knowledge” of what they signed and why, aren’t worthy of being honored by the efforts and funding of the state or the municipalities, and shouldn’t be entered in the pantheon of undisputed national and state heroes.
That of course doesn’t mean that Noreika and people like him should be called direct participants in the Holocaust, Jew murderers or simply murderers automatically.
Noreika’s supporters, however, furiously claim their opponents want to do just that, not just with General Storm but in general with all post-war anti-Soviet resistance, all the post-war partisans, and are therefore serving Russian propaganda, either intentionally or unintentionally.
What is the most serious and the most telling is that a part of the elite of the military and the special services and propagandists support this political and ideological position and have stood behind General Storm’s defenders.
Discussion of this issue which took place in a recent sitting of parliament speak very well to this attitude.
Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius presented a draft resolution to parliament condemning the “historical revisionism” of the Russian regime, mainly the Kremlin’s accusations Poland was a Nazi collaborator and ally and began World War II with the Nazis.
The resolution states it was the Soviet Union who together with Nazi Germany first divided Europe up and, by attacking Poland, started the war.
Although this document which was mainly intended to demonstrate Lithuanian solidarity with Poland was adopted by a large majority of votes, some rather fierce criticism was leveled against Linkevičius. Opposition conservatives and the radical right camp were teh sharpest critics, saying Linkevičius had served Russia in proclaiming Jonas Noreika a “Nazi collaborator,” that is, he had served Russian efforts to proclaim all post-war resisters Nazi collaborators.
Linkevičius, who has always criticized the plaque commemorating Noreika erected with funding from the municipality, has said Noreika had achieved merit because of the anti-Soviet resistance, but his contribution to setting up ghettos and seizing Jewish property can be interpreted as Nazi collaborations, and therefore “it is not fitting” for the state to lionize him.
Parliamentary politicians categorically demanded the foreign minister immediately issue a directive to all embassies abroad to defend Noreika because, they claimed, the courts had come to their final conclusion in this matter. Therefore the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry must send mandatory instructions to all state institutions on how to explain “correctly” to the world Noreika’s role and anti-Soviet resistance, emphasizing Moscow’s desire to taint all this.
It became clear from these discussions Lithuania as a society and a state hasn’t reached agreement on what should be considered contributing to the Holocaust and what collaboration with the Nazi occupational regimes means, and by what criteria a person might be proclaimed completely untarnished by these things.
Even worse, there are increased attempts, ideologically and politically, to quell these kinds of discussions and extinguish even their possibility.
And therefore Lithuania doesn’t have any real answers even to the radicals and the ill-willed propagandists, or to the real enemies of the state, never mind our most important international partners who keep on calling upon Lithuania to find such answers.
Full text in Lithuanian here.